November 1, 2021

Bangladesh @ 50: An Epic Saga of an Indomitable Nation

Policies are ethereal. No matter what the published doctrine or strategy might be, it is quite difficult to pinpoint a specific anchorage for a policy over a period of time – at a certain point in time. What we do get, however, is a general sense of being and a spatial sense of direction as to where we might be heading as a country, or as an institution or even for that matter, a society or an individual. Foreign Policy is almost at the heart of the art of statecraft. Its evolution is highly non-linear and – if we look back in history – it moves back and forth in time like a short-stepped tango danseuse. Foreign Policy, clearly written or shaded in grey, deals both with the vernacular and with the elite and everything that falls in between. As a researcher, the earliest foreign policy books known to me is the “Manusmrity” – or the Code of Manu from the Indian sub-continent stipulated to have been rooted in the timeframes of 12th to 10th century BCE. If you would look at the treatise, particularly at Chapter VII, on Raj Dharma, you will get an even older version of Kautilya’s Arthashastra. The chapter contains what ought to be a nation or a king’s policy ought to be, with regard to countries (or kingdoms) other than their own. A near parallel grew from what is China today in the form of Sun Tzu and his ‘Art of War’ in the 5th century BCE. These were like general principles which a sovereign ruler, in this case a king, would apply to the affairs of the state and to the conduct of relations with other sovereigns – which today – is variously termed as foreign policy. Let me proceed into the subject matter of this article with this spirit in its foundation.

Bangladesh @ 50

As I write this article, Bangladesh is celebrating its Golden Jubilee of Freedom and the Birth Centenary of its Father of the Nation, the Architect of its State, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Most auspiciously, we are also celebrating the anniversary of fifty-years of bilateral ties with our most trusted friend and our closest neighbour, India.

The story of Bangladesh is a saga of an epic proportion. The country had literally started with scorched earth. With three million dead and two hundred thousand raped (Jahan, 2013; Sharlach, 2000; Debnath, 2017), Bangladesh started with nothing but an indomitable resolve to survive the harsh winters of December 1971. Fifty years have passed since then and what some pundits once referred to as a ‘basket case with no hope of survival’ (Jahan, 1973) evolved into a “development miracle” (Barai, 2020) and a “land of opportunity” under the leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (Khondker, 2017; Wajed, S, 2020), the able daughter of the assassinated Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Thanks to, first, strong agricultural sector production – both extension and distribution and marketing; second, the rapid expansion of RMG-led production and export; and third, impressive remittance that pulled the economy even when the global economy was facing recessions and meltdown, the growth engine of Bangladesh keeps roaring ahead. It is not only these three direct impetus, but also a cocktail of robust and manifest structural reforms – expanding and reconfiguring public sector investments into the formation of infrastructure assets; a freer and more transparent flow of remittances from a thriving expatriate community; diversification of exports – to higher-value brands and integration of essentially middleware design and software components, which have contributed to Bangladesh’s journey towards becoming a journey of a determined and charismatic leadership (Moni & Joy, 2020). The Economy of the country has been growing at a sustained rate of more than 6% per annum for the last four decades and had it not been stifled by the sudden onslaught of the COVID19 paradox, it would have been lifted to an 8% paradigm starting 2020. Even after nearly two years of COVID19-induced constrictions, Bangladesh’s economy grew an astonishing 5.2% in 2021 and our growth projections are close to 7% again in the year coming up ahead.

Bangladesh is often tagged, and consequently, anointed as a model of development by the international financial institutions including the World Bank and IMF – despite their erstwhile reservations and skepticism about the very survival and growth of the country (Sawada, Mahmud and Kitano, 2018). The astute foreign policy dimension of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina not only complements but also acts as a primary vortex for international connectivity, fiscal stability and economic growth both for the country and for the region. As a secular,  sovereign and independent nation-state Bangladesh is formulating its foreign policy goals and objectives to advance its national interest based on the core dictum of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘Friendship to All, Malice towards None’ (Rahman, 1998).

Bangladesh has been slowly but steadily walking through various stages of its survival and growth as a Westphalian country in the geospatial, geo-strategic and geo-economic milieu of South Asia – bordering on the Indian Ocean and sitting on the tip of a thin land bridge to Southeast Asia and the theatre of the East. When we speak of the Foreign Policy imperatives for Bangladesh emanating from its economic realities, we must remember that Bangladesh had started with all the ingredients of a nation-state – except that its productive capabilities, assets, and revenues were either uncollateralized or impossibly immutable either to free-flowing cash or to high-powered foreign currency denominators. Securing and nurturing interest in the country came at a high personal cost and with a high degree of personal sacrifices. Indeed, the nation-building initiative of the country revolved around a mostly idealistic notion centred on Bangla as a language and Bengali as a dominant mode of cultural expressions – which survived not only two hundred years of British and Pakistani occupation but also nearly 21 years of successive autocratic regimes after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and defied many attempts on its intended national and institutional architecture.

Therefore, in retrospect, the foreign policy of Bangladesh evolved sparingly around our core constitutional principles – nationalism, socialism, democracy, and secularism – radiating from the spirit of the glorious war of liberation in 1971. Though Bangladesh had a few collaborators to the Pakistani regime installed as Ministers and even once as a Prime Minister by the Military autocracy (Mookherjee, 2015), it has somehow never forgotten that the constitution of Bangladesh dictates the state to formulate its foreign relations on the principles of respect for national sovereignty and equality, non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, peaceful settlement of international disputes, and respect for international law – keeping the centrality of the united nations as an arbiter of the international order (The Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 2020). The famous dictum of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, “friendship to all, and malice towards none”- remains the bedrock of the foreign policy manual – in spite of and despite the many allurements and threats from both within and from outside the borders of the country. As a nation-state, Bangladesh is committed to making friendship with all countries of the world to fulfil its destiny and to build a prosperous future not only for its people but also for the common good of the citizens of the world. The core spirit of our Liberation War guides us in raising our voice to support the oppressed peoples throughout the world – and not only for the disenfranchised Rohingyas from the North of Rakhine of the Union of Myanmar – 1.1 million of whom we have sheltered for the last four years purely on humanitarian grounds.

A core element of any nation state is the economic wealth and capability of its administrative architecture marked by the prosperity of its citizenry. We in Bangladesh consider prosperity not as financial or economic in nature. Rather, economic prosperity is only a mere sub-set of the archetypes of human, societal and ecological well-being that define our existence as conscious and conscientious beings capable to produce and pursue grand visions. Prosperity, to us, is inclusive. Prosperity to us is the ability of the state system to enable the individual to live with a measure of pride and dignity and deploy his or her productive capacity to the fullest possible extent.  Access to nutrition, health, shelter, education, and an otherwise decent living is all part of the prosperity that we understand. This was and still remains the founding principle of Bangladesh and the guiding doctrine of the Government.

Therefore, our foreign policy priorities emanate from a very basic wish list of the Government for the welfare of its people. Our priorities arise from a deep-rooted wish for synchronising our efforts with our neighbours and partners in the geosphere that we share. True to the election manifesto of 2008, Bangladesh has already reached the financial strength of a stable lower middle-income country. We aspire to become a developed country by 2041 and we are working on the Delta Plan for 2100. Lest we forget, we have rooted out the evil of transboundary terror utilising Bangladesh soil at great peril to both the state and to the life of its charismatic leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Bangladesh as a country was conceived from the highest ideals imaginable by humans. Ideas of freedom, democracy, equality, justice and inclusivity. Amongst these, the idea of democracy was the driving force. Be it the Language Movement of 1952, or the 6-point Movement of 1966, or for that matter, even the initial struggles of the post-1970 elections till March, Bangladesh was roused by the Greatest Bengali of all times, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman for the cause of democracy. The question of a human identity, free from the oppressive clutches of autocracy and autocratic dispensations, propelled the Bengali psyche to ultimately aspire for a land of their own so that they may live with pride and dignity.

Ever since its creation through the partition of India in 1947, the country named Pakistan was a geographical and cultural absurdity. Although the GDP of Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) exceeded that of its West counterpart during the formative stages, the discriminating economic policies and direct transfer of resources by the central government eventually turned the East into a colony of the West (Papanek, 1967; Khan, 1970). Referring to these stark disparities, Awami League proposed the famous six-point program of regional autonomy and emerged as the last resort of hope for the Bengali people, and indeed, a beacon of hope for all nationalities suppressed by Islamabad regime. Awami League won the absolute majority in the 1970 general election—the first of its kind in the history of Pakistan—in spite of the elections being held under the military dictatorship. When the authoritarian government of Pakistan denied upholding the democratic will of the people, the Bengali people under the astute leadership of the Father of the Nation become uncompromising and determined to free the country. The Pakistan military’s staunch refusal to hand over power to a Bengali-led civilian government led to the genocide which started on 25 March 1971 under ‘Operation Searchlight’ and ultimately the events led to a nine-month-long war of independence.

Geopolitical Context of Bangladesh Foreign Policy

Bangladesh is located at the cusp of the vast Indian landscape and in particular of Bengal and the so-called seven sisters, i.e., the Northeastern Region, coasting on the frontiers of the Bay of Bengal funnel and touching the northwest tip of the troubled Myanmar territories (Yasmin, 2016). Its geo-spatial triangulations make it strategically important for invariably all major powers of the world. India’s propensity to reconnect the economic corridors through Bangladesh has helped Bangladesh craft its foreign policy in a propitious manner, where both countries stand to gain significantly from a mutually convenient policy direction towards each other (Mantoo, 2013). A major part of this grand initiative revolves around the rivers which formed the lifelines of the greater Indian civilisation and the transfusion of products and ideas across its many ethnicities and languages. The great opening at the south, the Bay of Bengal, is also not just another sea. It is a living and breathing ecosystem of life forms; economic priorities; commercial and diplomatic effort; individual, business, and corporate interests; evolutionary tendencies of societies, nations, countries, especially those with a Westminster style democracy and those with a more regimented set of governance structures—and how each tries to influence and entice the other; and above all, of Mother Nature, with all her furies and fiery beauties and a rising sea-level (Iyer, 2017) and rapidly worsening conditions in global warming (Elahi & Khan, 2015).

In other words, harmony, and lack thereof, amongst often conflicting priorities of economy, ecology, and security deeply influence the thought spheres which underwrite the Foreign Policy paradigms of both the country and the region. The lenses, layers, and spheres through which the Bay of Bengal could be seen are also many and multifarious. Bangladesh’s foreign relations vis-a-vis other countries take account of these natural geopolitical endowments. Coupled with Bangladesh’s own initiatives for regional stability and connectivity, such as the SAARC, BIMSTEC, and BBIN processes, where the Bay of Bengal holds a very prominent position, currently, Bangladesh also hosts two intersecting strategic constructs crossing their pathways across the cone of the Bay of Bengal and the landmass that is Bangladesh, i.e., the Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI).

Bangladesh is richly endowed with many layers of political economy and geo-demographic variables making it an extremely complex, dynamic and fluid cauldron of ideas, acts, movements and visualisations. Many sets of ideas are simultaneously playing out their lives on the population of the country. As such it is a magnificent milieu of levels and layers, fields and players, so far as statecraft is concerned.

At the time of the birth of Bangladesh, not only the subcontinent but also the entire world was deeply divided by the Cold War. Realising this stark reality, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman manoeuvred his foreign policy to forge a bipartisan position in matters related to international politics, and create an amicable relationship with each party and even those who wished to stay away. Therefore, just after his return to the country in January 1972, when his favourite liberation forces (Mukti Bahini) were in a state of turmoil as a result of the after-shock of a guerrilla war, requested India to withdraw its troops immediately from Bangladesh, unlike any other newly born state anywhere in the world, ever. And India, as a true friend and partner, respecting the sovereignty of the new born country, took the timely measure to withdraw its troops. Indian withdrawal of troops also assisted Bangabandhu to get recognition of many countries, 126 very quickly.

Bangabandhu’s best bait was to appeal to reason and utilise the technologies of power to assert the legitimate aspirations of a sovereign and independent Bangladesh. Bangabandhu realised the nature of the evolution of power in the international domain and the sharp brakes which various coteries within the vestibules of the global power corridors exerted by means of control over the natural resources of the planet (Karim, 2020). Additionally, Bangabandhu understood the importance that Bangladesh ought to place on its rightful entry into the UN system and also into the Islamic Ummah.

As of 2021, Bangladesh is fast graduating into an economically solid and densely calibrated middle-income economy. As of 2021, our aim is to become a fully developed country by 2041. The Government of Bangladesh under the astute statesmanship of the Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is working relentlessly for realising the Visions 2021, 2041 and 2100 in order to translate the dream of the Father of Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of a happy and prosperous “Sonar Bangla” into a reality. The Foreign Office is also playing a key role in fulfilling these dreams of the Government. Stabilising the economy and poverty alleviation remains our foremost priority. We intend to complement this objective with a greater depth in external trading and FDI – coupled with a greater inflow of foreign remittance. During next few years, we expect to increase (a) foreign investment and diversified investment portfolio, (b) expansion & diversification of our export basket, (c) providing quality service to our diaspora and also involving them in our nation building efforts (d) transfer of critical technologies, and (e) gainful employment of our professionals and workers abroad.

Bangladesh and its Immediate Region

Since independence, Bangladesh has been maintaining a delicate balance in its regional engagements amidst the destabilising power politics affecting the South, Central, and Southeast Asian regions. Rather than going to confrontations with the neighbouring countries, it has rather chosen to resolve the issues of disputes through dialogues, and international arbitration mechanisms.

For Bangladesh, South Asia remains at the core of its foreign policy priorities. The historic Land Boundary Agreement with India in 2015 has untangled the complex territorial rights set down since as early as in 1713. The four thousand plus kilometres of land border between Bangladesh and India are now possible zones of prosperity instead of conflict (Bhattacharya, 2017).  Delimitation of the maritime boundary with both India and Myanmar—a historic dispute over the resource-rich Bay of Bengal, Bangladesh was able to persuade both countries to the international system and hold everyone including itself to the rigours of international standards. Our maritime delimitation is a rare example of engaging both the multilateral and the bilateral systems to solve regional disputes (Ghani, 2020). Despite the constant provocations of Myanmar regarding the Rohingya issue, Bangladesh has always been committed to engaging international mechanisms for their safe, democratic and sustainable repatriation, justice, and accountability of Rohingya people. Acclimatising the UN mechanism to support the persecuted citizens of Myanmar and bringing Myanmar to the UN court system without going to direct confrontations is a success story of Bangladesh’s regional foreign policy (Julhash, 2020). Bangabandhu methodically went in stages and in a step-by-step manner so that no loophole could jeopardise the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the newborn country. In spite of severe constraints and challenges, creating the seeds of a sovereign national identity – complete with the full spectrum of a Westphalian state system was a singularly important phenomenon that Bangabandhu gave birth to.

If we take a closer look at the way our diplomatic manoeuvres have been construed, knowingly, and possibly as equally, subconsciously, the immediate neighbourhood has remained a core focus of the country’s tactical formulations in the foreign policy domain. We constantly monitor the civilisational linkages across South Asia. The more recent bonds of trust, honour and shared sacrifices between Bangladesh and India remains the crux of this ideation. We have engaged the South Asian and East Asian neighbours beyond the call of regular diplomatic overtures and have gone beyond to engage structurally so that we become interconnected to the rest of Asia in an organic way and then catapult our productive endowments to a height achievable only by synergistic configurations and not alone.

Bangladesh’s Ties with India

South Asia is a unique place to be! Amongst other things, it is marked with a shared culture, concentric to the Indic civilisation; a widely varied topography; a strong lineage of family and religious bonds (and its flipside / consequent harmony and/or discord); cross-breeding societies, yet bound existence; a huge mélange of geographic and climatic conditions; invasions, assimilations and colonial past; the continuous interplay of strategic powers and power players; well-defined and strong administrative structures; growing economies and communities trapped in low-level equilibriums; and involvement and pre-eminence of security concerns (and consequently, security agencies).

In such a configuration, Bangladesh and India share an extraordinary relationship, so as to say. It’s more congenital than architectural.  Sketched, as post-Westphalian republics, out of a stretch of land and waters, which sheltered a multitude of nations, peoples and belief-systems for centuries across, Bangladesh and India are not exclusive neighbours. Rather, Bangladesh-India relations are multifaceted and deeply inter-entrenched in a shared history, geographical contiguity, cultural commonality, and economic complementarity. The psychological bonds, which stem from the association of the two countries during the ‘Glorious War of Liberation – 1971’ remain a dominant factor in how peoples of the two countries see each other. While many inside India would not know, Bangladesh has always been supremely aware of the pivotal role that the Government and people of India, and especially of the Indian Armed Forces and of the supreme sacrifices made by its members, played in our War of Liberation. The shared struggle of 1971 has set the benchmark for bilateral cooperation in maintaining peace and stability and upholding the superior human values in our neighbourhood landscape.  Needless to say, the War of Liberation has set in motion a dynamic détente that defines the entire range of Confidence Building Measures [or CBM] between the two countries.

It is often said and categorically noted that India and Bangladesh are bound by history and heritage but it is seldom understood which history and whose heritage the countries or republics – which in themselves are rather recent phenomena in the stage of world politics – share. Again, it may not be very wise to claim that we fully understand the extent, range and depth of the vision which define this relationship over the years to come (Mamun, 2015). The situation is further complicated when we are dealing with the flux-vortex of complex socio-economic parameters marked by ironies. Both countries have a relatively young population, i.e., passing through an era of demographic dividends; both countries have pervasive and hardcore poverty; both countries suffer from rising income inequalities; both countries have slow permeation of literacy and knowledge; and parts of both countries have seen aggressive religious fundamentalism. At the same time, both countries also have strong community driven traditions of employment and inclusive prosperity. And interestingly, people of both countries have, by and large, an ambitious mindset – when national ambitions are not solely mired by putting the next meal on the table rather the aspiration levels have risen up to landing an explorer vehicle on Mars.

The intense and dynamic interlinks between the two countries in terms of trade and commerce is complemented by the fact that at least three major sweet-water river systems of the world, complete with their tributaries and branches, alluvial deltas and marshes, a full-fledged sea with a sizeable and resource-rich continental shelf, are shared by the two countries. One cannot but write with heartfelt passion when one writes about anything, which even remotely relates to the relationship between the two countries. Amongst the menaces which festered the relationship between the two countries, Land Boundary Agreement was a strange case to deal with. Complications had originally started with the Radcliffe award when on the stroke of a certain midnight in 1947, a caricatured border was produced by an Englishman who had never even visited the areas that he was entrusted to divide. Further complication had arisen with the differentiated implementation of the 1974 Treaty signed by the founder of the Independent Bangladesh Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is hard to believe but remains nonetheless true, that of the 4,096 kilometres of border between Bangladesh and India, only 6.5 kilometres remained un-demarcated and it remained so in three separate pieces none of which is longer than 3 kilometres at a stretch and one involved nothing other than a river which has shifted course many years before! The question of exchange of enclaves (111 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh with an area of 17,158.13 acres; 51 Bangladeshi enclaves in Indian territory with an area of 7,110.02 acres) and territories in adverse possession (there was 3,506.01 acres of Bangladesh territory under the adverse possession of India and 3,024.16 acres Indian territory under adverse possession of Bangladesh) also plagued the relationship between the two countries till now due only to procedural delays.

Even when technical committees headed by Envoys Plenipotentiary had signed and exchanged close to twelve hundred strip-maps, and the cabinets had approved in effect the Mujib-Indira Treaty of 1974, the issue remained pending for a lack of consensus at the Parliament. De facto issues constrained by de jure concerns. It is interesting to see how once a perfectly placid land could turn into a hotbed of division with the introduction of a foreign concept. The sub-human levels of existence that inhabitants of the enclaves and adversely possessed lands lived in was not only a problem, rather it was a shame for the two countries so long as they remained unresolved. Bangladesh had ratified this supremely important treaty in the early seventies. The ratification by the Indian Legislature effectively removed one of the last vestiges of a foreign Raj and its vicious measures to divide the Indian subcontinent. The nature of this peculiar beast – called Enclaves, Adversely Possessed Lands and Undemarcated Boundaries had literally been humanitarian and law-enforcement issues of epic proportion. The lack of a de jure agreement represented a serious impediment to the People-to-People connect of both the countries, and led to an Achilles’ Heel which undermined the security apparatus and processes of both Bangladesh and India. Although each successive Government in India worked hard to get the Constitutional Amendment Bill passed, it is Prime Minister Modi who could be credited the most for bringing all parties together into a breath-taking consensus.

An area that created headlines in each other’s countries for well over three decades was the concern for security and especially the rise of autonomous non-state and sub-state actors. In last twelve years since Awami League came to power in Bangladesh, considerable momentum has been whipped up in both countries to drive out sub-state actors infringing on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other. Most notable amongst these are Bangladesh Government’s steps to mobilise actions against the Northeast insurgents like ULFA et al. Actions taken in spite of the limited force capabilities of the law enforcement agencies of the country are symptomatic of the commitment of the government to bolster Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) taken on its part to dispel the confusion and aspersions for distrust in each other.

Since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power twelve years ago, her Government has been trying to piece together a coordinated strategy to put the relationship between the two countries on the right track, and essentially, on an incrementally upward growth trajectory. Very much within the scope of this collaboration, be it at the bilateral or at the sub-regional or at the regional level, the intention was to make collective endeavours for ensuring ecologically sustainable economic progress for the region as a whole.

Bangladesh in South Asian Region: A Model for Symbiotic Existence

For countries to exist in peace with themselves, with their constituent peoples, and with their neighbours across borders, we must ensure for each:

  • First, equitable market access commensurate to the merit of comparative economic advantage (negating the infant industry argument) in the other;
  • Second, a rapid expansion of the environmentally sustainable regional export basket in both goods and services – contributing to the reconstruction of the ancient value-chains (essentially supplementing its gamut with free movement of cargo and seasonal workforces);
  • Third, quick transfer and assimilation of critical technologies;
  • Fourth, broader employment of both professionals and workers in regional economies based purely on the principle of ‘dead-weight burden’ reduction;
  • Fifth, commencement of regional power, energy and communication grids, and
  • Sixth, embedding the youth, the media, the civil society and the social media, in the discourses related to policy formulation.

The various factors enabling, calling for and dictating cooperation between the two countries are geographic proximity, common language, similar demographics and consumption pattern, common development needs and experience, and common inherited industrial infrastructure to name a few. In terms of economics, these are very high positive simulators in the Gravity Model, which would bring any two countries and their economies extremely close together – as if they were almost one yet each maintained its sovereign priorities (Mamun, 2015).

The geopolitical or rather geostrategic interests, that are a natural result of the location of Bangladesh and India in South Asia, cannot be undermined. If we trace our recorded history back to the 7th century, when Hiuen Tsang travelled through India, we would notice that the erstwhile Bengal and particularly East Bengal—which is now Bangladesh—had always been one of the most critical gateways to the vast economic and even political inner core of the Indian sub continent.  Sketchier glimpses from Mahabharata or for that matter Megasthenes’ Indica might only complement this fact from an even more ancient past.

At the level of pure physical and tactical security of the societies though, which inhabit today’s South Asia, it is quite obvious that both India and Bangladesh share a vision of a peaceful immediate neighbourhood, and that decision-makers on both sides understand the important role being jointly played by the two countries. National security, regime stability, and territorial integrity define the baseline understanding of both Bangladesh and Indian policy-makers. From a purely operational viewpoint, Bangladesh understands the depth and breadth of security that India’s friendly postures ensure and at the same time, India appreciates the value of the unprecedented security measures taken by the Government of Sheikh Hasina at a very high personal cost and commitment to free the Bangladesh landmass from anti-India elements. This has only added to the unmatched breakthroughs in the development of the Northeast and stability across the entire Eastern theatre. After all, insurgency and terrorism are common enemies to both countries. Bangladesh has allowed the transport of heavy equipment for power generation and other industrial usage in the Northeast ending decades of disconnect between the Indian mainland and the northeast. Work is now going on to facilitate greater connectivity between and across points in India and Bangladesh.

As the world’s attention zooms in on Asia and her Oceans, the two countries have successfully resolved the maritime boundary delimitation issue. It would be prudent to note that the Indian Ocean Rim region has three declared nuclear powers. Successful arbitration between India and Bangladesh for the resolution of the maritime boundary delimitation has become an issue for discussion, deliberation and introspection in far away countries.  We must find ways to harness the strength of the Blue Economy for the benefits of our two peoples.

Over the last couple of years, Bangladesh and India have put in place several ‘Capstone Documents’ and set in motion ‘Key Processes’ which will define the Government-to-Government relationship in the years to come. Starting with the visionary Joint Communiqué of 2010, the Framework Agreement of 2011, and the institution of the Joint Consultative Committee (JCC) at the level of Foreign Ministers have ensured that our two countries embark on an irretrievably irrevocable process of shared and mutual prosperity and unparalleled confidence in each other. The Ministries of Home and Foreign Affairs now meet regularly. The Border Security Instruments are now in realtime sync with each other starting with the Directors-General down to Company Commanders. The District Commissioners at the bordering Districts now meet to resolve the issues, which create tensions and hindrances in our bilateral cooperation at the state level. All these measures attest to only one thing, that leadership at the helm believe in looking ahead, that they believe in looking beyond the rear-view mirror, that they believe in creating the charts and the maps ahead, and that they don’t want to go back in a time warp. Case in point – the Joint Statement of March, 2021. AI is now a core collaboration area.

With at least three nuclear powered neighbouring nations operating in the same geo-maritime spheres, it is needless to say that solving the equation to a win-win solution requires Bangladesh and India to work out close proximity anomalies.

It is said that visions grow out of facts of the past, appreciation of the present, and ideas for the future. We have vividly seen the past and are experiencing the present. Visionary thinkers from both sides are speaking of a couple of new areas to begin working on. These include, amongst others:

  • First, managing Peaceful and prosperous International Borders and Security,
  • Second, water Security and joint management of river basins.
  • Third, energy Security and cross-border generation and trade in power,
  • Fourth, connectivity and Integrated Multimodal Communication, with special emphasis on utilising inland waterways,
  • Fifth, sub-regional and regional development and utilisation of mega-architectures such as regional and continental highways, rail networks, sea ports and coastal shipping,
  • Sixth, investment, production, manufacturing and service sector complementarity,
  • Seventh, education and health sector development and elimination of diseases, malnutrition, illiteracy and ignorance,
  • Eighth, designing sustainable and forward-looking mechanisms in joint finance and marketing of both innovative and high-end value-added products and services, and
  • Ninth, development of leadership across South Asia to institute measurable social and economic changes.

Dialogues at both the Track 1, Track 2 and Track 1.5 are critical to the realisation of these formulations. The India-Bangladesh Friendship Dialogue (where the India Foundation is also a major partner) which took a vertical life since 2015 is a glaring example of the Track 1.5 innovation between the two countries.

Also, endorsements are coming at private levels at the helm to take the idea of reconnecting the ancient value-based chains and networks of production, trade, commerce and communication into its pristine natural configurations. Since days have changed and times have passed, a host of value-added services and production possibilities have been added to the paradigm of our interconnectedness. Telecommunications, power, energy, university and skill-building centres, hospitals and hospitality services have been added to the regional and sub-regional architecture of cooperation.

Bangladesh and the Indian Northeast are located at the “Fulcrum Advantage Point” of such a configuration to emerge. It is imperative that we do not only make the policies and rules for our two countries, but that we effectively implement all those to boost both South Asian trade and trade with the Southeast Asian nations.

Bangladesh-India: Way forward for our shared prosperity

In the interest of sustainable cooperation, it is important to take effective steps to resolve pending issues like sharing of common river waters and bringing down border killing to zero as such incidents vitiates public minds. The policymakers should also expedite signing of the treaty for sharing of the waters of the Teesta, the river  so vital for northern Bangladesh’s irrigation as it still remains a long-pending issue.

As India and Bangladesh are celebrating the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, the two countries, bonded by nature, history and culture, should be bold enough to go for new areas of cooperation and connectivity, as it is the key apparatus to change the fate of the region. And that connectivity should not be in terms of land, road, and waterways alone, it must be of culture and  people-to-people connections as well.  The two countries’ political leaders must look beyond the borders, and forge a progressive partnership for a peaceful, prosperous, and progressive region.

As of now, benefits of trade and economic cooperation remain far below their potential. Trade between the two countries, a major part of which takes place through land ports, face formidable challenges. Cost of trading remains very high, mostly associated with lack of appropriate trade facilitation as well as logistical difficulties and the consequent high lead time that discourages traders. Indeed, some studies show that for some products, trade costs for Bangladesh are higher than those associated with trading with Europe and North America. In spite of the fact that India imports about US$ 450.0 billion worth of products annually from the global market, Bangladesh’s exports to India have tended to hover around only US$ 1.0 billion. Direct B-to-B connections between productive networks and value chains remain sketchy.

It is against this backdrop that the ongoing efforts and policy shifts are important from the perspective of triggering substantive changes in going forward. The recent efforts to deepen bilateral cooperation have been underpinned by initiatives in many areas including promoting trade in goods, services and energy; establishing multi-modal connectivity; infrastructure building; initiatives to stimulate cross-border investment; and cooperation in areas of technology and capacity-building in various sectors. A large number of projects are being implemented in Bangladesh at present, with many being financed by the three lines of credit (LOC) offered by India worth US$ 8 billion. Energy import from India; India’s involvement in building Bangladesh’s nuclear power plant; the grant provided for the Padma bridge; building special economic zones for Indian investors in Bangladesh; the signing of the coastal shipping agreement; allowing transit facilities to Nepal and Bhutan through India to use Bangladesh’s Mongla, Chattogram and Payra ports; the signing of the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Nepal (BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement and other initiatives could usher in a sea of change in the way that trade, business, and other areas of connectivity operate at the moment. Bangladesh perceives these to be opportunities that could be leveraged to transform its comparative advantages to competitive advantages, enabling it to address the challenges of development and the dual graduation. We want to connect our river, rails, roads, aviation and shipping networks to an optimised format with India so that people-to-people and business-to-business connectivities remain unhindered and can bring the best to the fore.

I would not dare dictate the natural evolution of the relationship between our two countries. But I believe that this is time we devise a grand dream which our two great peoples could share and partake. I expect from all of us to put together a vision document which would define the core economic focus as long as the interaction between the two countries are concerned, rights and responsibilities of both the social and the economic actors, which draw the social and the economic paradigms between the two countries. Through innovative initiatives, the friendship between the two nations could be learnt as lessons by the rest of the world, and to replicate the ideas regionally and sub-regionally, in different domains – economic, social, cultural, political and environmental and so on.

This requires imaginative ideas, courageous leaders and strong and learning institutions, capable of converting these visions into reality. What if we toyed with the idea of the “Great Trans-Asian Rail-Road-River Network” to connect to the Seas in the South? May be, such are the visions of connectivity and infrastructural development, landscaping and ultimately, “mindscaping” the entire region.

Indo-Bangladesh friendship initiatives should be viewed in the larger context of re-inventing the meaning of ‘development’, from a non-western, non-universal stand-point, of defining change and need with respect to our specific histories, experiences, economies and culture, and not as a by-product of western subordination, underdevelopment and colonialism.  If we can plan intelligently, the instances of India-Bangladesh friendship would be quoted as an exemplar of ‘bilateralism and beyond’, of how a sub-regional formation locks us to each other in an unbreakable embrace for our region to prosper and for our people to find both liberty and grandeur.

People of Indian subcontinent have gone through similar history and they were invaded by the Persians, the Huns, the Moguls, the Arabs and the British. They withstood the massacres of Nadir Shah or Chengis Khan, yet they maintained their dignity of life and respect towards all faiths, ethnicity, colour, and background. No wonder Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was overwhelmed with it and coined the word that Indian strength and beauty is in “Unity in Diversity.”

If we look towards next 50 years of South Asia, its strength should come from a tolerant society of multi-culturalism multi-ethnicity, multi-religions and multi-races.

In spite of efforts, millions of people in many parts of the world are being uprooted from their homes and traditional jobs due to violence, wars and terror. Many are becoming victims of ignorance and spread of venom of hatred. Forcibly displaced people of Myanmar known as Rohingya are such victims. Therefore, to establish a peaceful world across nations, it is time to inculcate a mindset of tolerance, a mindset of respect towards others irrespective of ethnicity, colour, race and religion. Bangladesh proposed such a resolution in the UN known as “Culture of Peace” and it was adopted with consensus. Let this South Asian leadership prove to the rest of the world that they truly can realise “Culture of Peace” in the subcontinent for a secure, peaceful and stable South Asia.

The ambitions for South Asia is as grand and as deep as human imagination can be. We do not need to be beholden to the prejudices and to the dogma which defined our colonial past. Rather, we ought to consider constructing a layered milieu of actors and processes which would serve the region in a more meaningful way than ever before. Across the boundaries of the nation state, we ought to consider rejuvenating the civilisational linkages which defined our characteristic traits as humans and as nations.

Ambitious as may be, over next 50 years, I would wish to have sustainable peace and stability in South Asia. Our youth must be freed from the confines of the prejudiced mind so that they can realise the visions of the enlightened soul. South Asia must show the world that it practices a ‘Culture of Peace’ and it is a region of tolerance and respect for others irrespective of ethnicity, colour, race and religion. True to the meaning of Dharma – the path of righteousness. Only by accepting the richness of our texture as a civilisation can we truly harness the potential of the individual. Ultimately, if the human individual is at peace and is in comfort for life and dignity then we have succeeded as nations and as states.

Author Brief Bio: Dr. A. K. Abdul Momen is the Foreign Minister of Bangladesh

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